Life lessons can be richly taken from the verite-style documentary THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN, and they go well beyond the subject matter of Muslim identity.
Indeed this documentary is a hopeful narrative, showing that candor, civility and constructive engagement can significantly alter soul-crushing bureaucracies for the better. This can happen in even the midst of grave disagreements over the course to be taken by organizational entities from venerable organizational cultures such as a mosque, a church, a synagogue, a temple, a tribe, a state, a nation, or an international body like the European Union or the United Nations.
What is equally apparent, and sadder, is that the social change agents among us, like Asra Nomani — progressive feminist American-Muslim denizen and globe-trotting world citizen, journalist and professor — pay a high personal price for raising consciousness and advocating improvements that require any entrenched organization to move beyond its comfort range maintaining the status quo.
One perspective on characteristic strengths of any governed group that allow it to achieve historical longevity and fruitfulness (as opposed to entropy) is that the particular group or religion — Judaism, for example — keeps alive within it over considerable time, as healthy variants, three very different but vital sub-groups: traditional (orthodox) , moderate (conservative)and progressive (reform).
Each of these groups preserves faith and ensure that the faith doesn’t fall so far into extremes of error that it dies out without balance and correction.
This forthright documentary chronicles the clash between concerted, articulated, bold, reformative social change agency as stimulated by Nomani, and the protective defensiveness of a religion under hostile world critique, Islam. It’s a clash that comes to life in a fairly reactionary way in the Morgantown, WV, mosque. At times, the mosque is transcendent, and, at other times, it is an uneasy amalgam of orthodox, conservative, and reform-minded Muslims and their families. The end result is a very healthy examination of the cultural evolution of a mosque and its people.
The pace of forward thinking, social justice and positive change may not satisfy the movers and shakers, who urge us to the light in every generation, and press us forward, often at great cost to themselves and their loved ones.
Still, this terrific documentary allows us listen to the diverse voices of Muslims who love God, their precious faith’s tradition, and also their sisters and brothers. These voices reveal that first at home, and now in the greater community of the nation and the world, the activist Asra Nomani has succeeded in waking up sleepers in a misogynistic medieval dream to the need to restore to Islam its original feminism.
Aminah Yaquin Carroll, raised in Massachusetts and a former long-term New Yorker, now lives on a small farm in West Virginia and works as a writer. She has a BA in Religious Studies from Fordham University, an MPA from CUNY Baruch and is a fellow of the national Institute for Educational Leadership. She has worked in human services and public program development for more than 30 years and has been active in interfaith work for decades. She is a life-long Red Sox fan and a practicing Muslim.